Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on August 29, 2017

in Complexity & Emergence, Hayek, Myths and Fallacies, Philosophy of Freedom

… is from page 111 of the 1976 Vol. II (“The Mirage of Social Justice”) of F.A. Hayek’s brilliant work, Law, Legislation, and Liberty (footnotes deleted; note that Hayek’s meaning of “Great Society” is not the same meaning that Lyndon Johnson attached to that term):

Though the conception that a common scale of particular values is a good thing which ought, if necessary, be enforced, is deeply founded in the history of the human race, its intellectual defense today is based mainly on the erroneous belief that such a common scale of ends is necessary for the integration of the individual activities into an order, and a necessary condition of peace.  This error is, however, the greatest obstacle to the achievement of those very ends.  A Great Society has nothing to do with, and is in fact irreconcilable with ‘solidarity’ in the true sense of unitedness in the pursuit of known common goals.  If we all occasionally feel that it is a good thing to have a common purpose with our fellows, and enjoy a sense of elation when we can act as members of a group aiming at common ends, this is an instinct which we have inherited from tribal society and which no doubt often still stands us in good stead whenever it is important that in a small group we should act in concert to meet a sudden emergency.  It shows itself conspicuously when sometimes even the outbreak of war is felt as satisfying a craving for such a common purpose; and it manifests itself most clearly in modern times in the two greatest threats to a free civilization: nationalism and socialism.

Most of the knowledge on which we rely in the pursuit of our ends is the unintended by-product of others exploring the world in different directions from those we pursue ourselves because they are impelled by different aims; it would never have become available to us if only those ends were pursued which we regarded as desirable.  To make it a condition for the membership of a society that one approved of, and deliberately supported, the concrete ends which one’s fellow members serve, would eliminate the chief factor which makes for the advancement of such a society.

DBx: Smith benefits when Jones and Williams pursue concrete goals that differ not only from each other’s goals but also from Smith’s goals.  A concrete goal that Jones pursues might be one that Smith would never in a millennia have thought to pursue but which, if Jones succeeds, will yield some good or service that, when Smith buys it, improves Smith’s life.  More importantly, the knowledge that Jones’s success generates is useful to others (“Arranging for the production of smartphones in the way that Jones has done is better than the way that I thought of,” says entrepreneur Williams to himself.)  Even if Jones fails in the pursuit of his concrete goals, his failure produces knowledge that others – including Smith – can use in the future as they each pursue their own unique concrete goals.

Individuals in a free and vibrant civilization are united not by common concrete goals but, instead, by a set of shared abstract values (for example, no one is above the law) and expectations about the general range of how others act under different sets of circumstances (for example, people will not ostracize a merchant whose business proves to be unusually profitable).


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